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Five new books on the Middle Ages worth a look!

5 medieval books

The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty

By Alexander Lee

Doubleday, 2014

Renowned as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic innovation, the Renaissance is cloaked in a unique aura of beauty and brilliance. Its very name conjures up awe-inspiring images of an age of lofty ideals in which life imitated the fantastic artworks for which it has become famous. But behind the vast explosion of new art and culture lurked a seamy, vicious world of power politics, perversity, and corruption that has more in common with the present day than anyone dares to admit.

In this lively and meticulously researched portrait, Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee illuminates the dark and titillating contradictions that were hidden beneath the surface of the period’s best-known artworks. Rife with tales of scheming bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, bloody rivalries, vicious intolerance, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess, this gripping exploration of the underbelly of Renaissance Italy shows that, far from being the product of high-minded ideals, the sublime monuments of the Renaissance were created by flawed and tormented artists who lived in an ever-expanding world of inequality, dark sexuality, bigotry, and hatred.

The Ugly Renaissance is a delightfully debauched journey through the surprising contradictions of Italy’s past and shows that were it not for the profusion of depravity and degradation, history’s greatest masterpieces might never have come into being.

From Kirkus Reviews: Seeking to expose “the hidden story behind the paintings that have come to dominate perceptions of the Renaissance in Italy,” the author, a fellow at the Center for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, turns his gaze from 15th-century Florence’s fabled facades downward to its sewage-filled alleys and the troubled lives of their inhabitants. Focusing progressively on the lived experiences of the period’s artists, the designs of their patrons and the broader political tendencies reshaping the continent, Lee provides an entertaining frolic buttressed by serious scholarship.

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Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris

By Eric Jager

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

A riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris, by one of the most brilliant medievalists of his generation.

On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans was murdered by a band of masked men. The crime stunned and paralyzed France since Louis had often ruled in place of his brother King Charles, who had gone mad. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the city’s chief law enforcement officer–and one of history’s first detectives. As de Tignonville began to investigate, he realized that his hunt for the truth was much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

A rich portrait of a distant world, Blood Royal is a gripping story of conspiracy, crime and an increasingly desperate hunt for the truth. And in Guillaume de Tignonville, we have an unforgettable detective for the ages, a classic gumshoe for a cobblestoned era.

Review from Dallas Morning News: The pleasure of his narrative — and the devil that points to the duke’s killer — lies in the details of daily life in Paris in the early 1400s: the topography of the streets, the particulars of renting a house, and what it took to secure water for a band of horses. What Jager conveys so memorably here is the night atmosphere of medieval Paris — the walls within walls, the angling, unlit streets where a galloping troop of men can rouse an entire neighborhood — and a few streets later melt into darkness.

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The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century

By William Rosen

Viking Adult, 2014

In May 1315, it started to rain. It didn’t stop anywhere in north Europe until August. Next came the four coldest winters in a millennium. Two separate animal epidemics killed nearly 80 percent of northern Europe’s livestock. Wars between Scotland and England, France and Flanders, and two rival claimants to the Holy Roman Empire destroyed all remaining farmland. After seven years, the combination of lost harvests, warfare, and pestilence would claim six million lives—one eighth of Europe’s total population.

William Rosen draws on a wide array of disciplines, from military history to feudal law to agricultural economics and climatology, to trace the succession of traumas that caused the Great Famine. With dramatic appearances by Scotland’s William Wallace, and the luckless Edward II and his treacherous Queen Isabella, history’s best documented episode of catastrophic climate change comes alive, with powerful implications for future calamities.

Review from the Toronto Star: His power lies in the breadth and quality of his research. “Whatever the connections between famine, climate change, plague and a century of wars, they together added up to a demographic shock that upended the arithmetic of feudal manorialism,” he writes. The groundwork for disaster was laid in the good warm years when populations exploded, and then famine brought a disruption in the food supply. The third horseman rides a black horse and carries a set of scales. “It is a reminder” writes Rosen, “that famine is a matter of equilibrium: of the delicate balance between life and death.” It took a “sudden shift in the weather” to bring catastrophe.

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Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad

By Brian Catlos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

In Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors, the award-winning scholar Brian Catlos puts us on the ground in the Mediterranean world of 1050–1200. We experience the sights and sounds of the region just as enlightened Islamic empires and primitive Christendom began to contest it. We learn about the siege tactics, theological disputes, and poetry of this enthralling time. And we see that people of different faiths coexisted far more frequently than we are commonly told.

Catlos’s meticulous reconstruction of the era allows him to stunningly overturn our most basic assumption about it: that it was defined by religious extremism. He brings to light many figures who were accepted as rulers by their ostensible foes. Samuel B. Naghrilla, a self-proclaimed Jewish messiah, became the force behind Muslim Granada. Bahram Pahlavuni, an Armenian Christian, wielded power in an Islamic caliphate. And Philip of Mahdia, a Muslim eunuch, rose to admiral in the service of Roger II, the Christian “King of Africa.”

What their lives reveal is that, then as now, politics were driven by a mix of self-interest, personality, and ideology. Catlos draws a similar lesson from his stirring chapters on the early Crusades, arguing that the notions of crusade and jihad were not causes of war but justifications. He imparts a crucial insight: the violence of the past cannot be blamed primarily on religion.

Review from the Christian Science Monitor: Catlos argues convincingly that crusades and jihads were not primarily religious phenomena. Often religion was little more than a convenient justification for wars whose true motives were more complicated: desire for power, access to lucrative trade routes, and strategic maneuvering in a complex political landscape. Of course religious ideology did help motivate both soldiers and rulers at times, and there were undeniable cases of religious persecution and scapegoating. But these cases tended to emerge only when deeper forces destabilized a region. And even during periods of intense turmoil, Christians and Muslims often fought side by side against members of their own religions. Sectarian squabbling within religious groups was far more common than grand clashes between East and West, Christianity and Islam.

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The Hundred Years War: A People’s History

By David Green

Yale University Press, 2014

The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) dominated life in England and France for well over a century. It became the defining feature of existence for generations. This sweeping book is the first to tell the human story of the longest military conflict in history. Historian David Green focuses on the ways the war affected different groups, among them knights, clerics, women, peasants, soldiers, peacemakers, and kings. He also explores how the long war altered governance in England and France and reshaped peoples’ perceptions of themselves and of their national character.

Using the events of the war as a narrative thread, Green illuminates the realities of battle and the conditions of those compelled to live in occupied territory; the roles played by clergy and their shifting loyalties to king and pope; and the influence of the war on developing notions of government, literacy, and education. Peopled with vivid and well-known characters—Henry V, Joan of Arc, Philippe the Good of Burgundy, Edward the Black Prince, John the Blind of Bohemia, and many others—as well as a host of ordinary individuals who were drawn into the struggle, this absorbing book reveals for the first time not only the Hundred Years War’s impact on warfare, institutions, and nations, but also its true human cost.

Review from The National: Green’s approach to narrating the sprawling century of intermittent violence and tense truces that followed is more heavily thematic than most accounts of the Hundred Years War. Despite the fact that hostilities erupted due to the personality clashes of two kings (it’s difficult to envision the same testy sequence of events happening between Edward’s heir, the ineffectual Richard II, and Philip’s heir, the kind-hearted Jean II, for instance), Green traces the impulses and impacts of war through many levels of society, both in England and on the continent. It’s a fruitful and very involving approach, frequently managing to put human faces on what can often be impersonal passages of military history in other accounts.

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